Thursday, September 4, 2014

Rohan: Tracking the Night Moves

(Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves is being regarded as one of the year's best. Though it's starting to appear online in the US, it has only recently opened in the UK, where our friend Rohan Morbey, who blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself, checked it out. We're delighted to repost his enthusiastic review, and hope you'll follow Rohan over on Twitter!)

A dam in the Pacific Northwest is targeted to be blown up by two young eco-crusaders and one ex-con. They want to send a message to everyone and no one in particular and assume it’s a victimless crime, after all they’re just sticking it to ‘the man’ who is poisoning rivers and polluting water. So what’s the harm? Unlike those corporate a-holes making trillions, these three really care for the planet and the environment, right?

Night Moves focuses on Josh (Jesse Einsenberg), Dana (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) as the three plot, carry out, and face the consequences of their actions in another slow paced, character-driven drama from director Kelly Reichardt. As you would expect from this director, dialogue concerning plot detail is at a premium and relies on the audience to work out what is happening, to which Reichardt gives subtle clues to aid the general plot of ‘blowing up a dam.' Unlike most films with a terrorist storyline, there is no background given to the characters or why they are doing what they are doing, nor is there any police manhunt after the event, sending the film into thriller territory.

We can assume Josh and Dana met at an activist meeting, where documentary film making no longer was enough to get the message across; we see them both watching a short film where Dana challenges the film maker, and Josh stands in his corner, quietly judging the content. Like many of Reichardt’s characters, Josh is a loner, often framed on his own, in corners, and in the shadows. Furthermore, the three never look like a team who have carefully rehearsed their plan. They are merely three individuals who are in this for their own selfish motives and have given no thought of what happens after the bomb goes off.

Whereas Reichardt’s previous three films (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff) all have characters on a literal journey from one place to another, Night Moves sees Josh and Dana on a more internal journey, from being eco-crusaders to potential murderers when a man is reported missing near their target; their journey threatens to be one of no return. I especially liked the shift in tone between the first and second halves of the film, from slow-burning character drama to a paranoia study (calling this a ‘thriller’ would be misleading), without ever losing focus on the characters and, of course, Reichardt’s love of natural settings. Oregon and its surroundings are just as vital a character in her films as New York is to a film maker like Woody Allen, and Reichardt’s appreciation for open spaces, natural scenery, and her character’s relationship to those places are essential elements of her cinema.

For the first hour we know very little about Josh and Dana, and it’s only after the event that Reichardt shows them in their natural habitats. Josh doesn’t have an underground lair with multiple screens and blue prints, but rather works on a farm harvesting vegetables earning very little and has a boss whom he seems to look down on, like all those at his eco-crusader meetings. Dana works at a health spa, just a temporary job (I assumed) like any young girl might have until she finds her calling in life. These are two very ordinary young people, and Reichardt does an excellent job of keeping them that way; even in the surprising moments of the final act when something happened which, at first, I didn’t quite buy into but on reflection perfectly fits in with the typically unplanned and lack of thought given to the actions from Josh up until that point.

The film ends with the director’s trademark open and abrupt ending, the most densely plotted scene in all of Reichardt's films, yet as is her usual modus operandi the ending is open and abrupt enough to leave the audience to make up their minds as to what happens next. Although it may star one of Hollywood’s brightest young male leads in Eisenberg, Night Moves feels just as auteurist as anything Reichardt has made to date, and cements her place as one of American cinema’s most important film makers working outside the ,Hollywood system.

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